Research Offers Insight Into Attracting First-Time Boat Buyers

Grow Boating, an industry-wide marketing effort to promote the boating lifestyle, released a study offering insight into the thinking of the First-Time Boat Buyer (FTBB).

With changes in consumer shopping and online behaviour over the last decade, the study was commissioned by the Grow Boating Board of Directors to better understand today’s first-time boat buyer as well as determine how manufacturers, dealers and the industry’s marketing campaign, Discover Boating, can apply the findings to generate sales.

Study findings include definitions of six different types of first-time boat buyers, including their interests and psychographic traits, what motivates them to explore boat ownership, how they move from ‘boating’ to ‘owning,’ and insights the industry can use to better support these buyers on their journey to ownership.

For example, a key finding that reinforces long-held industry beliefs is that participation is the single greatest trigger of the first-time boat buyer’s desire to own.

The initial research findings were shared with industry stakeholders during several of last year’s marine trade events, including the International BoatBuilders Exhibition and Conference (IBEX), the Marine Dealers Conference and Expo (MDCE) and the Discover Boating Summit in Chicago.

The complete research white paper, as well as videos and a quick-reference guide on the six types of first-time buyers, are now available on the Canadian industry stakeholder toolkit at

According to 2015 data from Info-Link, first-time buyers represent 33 percent of all boats sold in the US – a nearly 20 percent decline since 2005. This decline is largely responsible for why the average boat owner continues to increase in age.

“While the recreational boating industry has recovered from the recession, each year we are seeing fewer people enter boating for the first time, according to Info-Link,” says Carl Blackwell, Grow Boating’s President. “We knew we needed to better understand how to attract and keep the first-time boat buyer and this new Discover Boating research is a great first step. It’s the most comprehensive study to date on the first-time buyer and will help us adapt our business practices, making sure we do a better job attracting these buyers and keep them in boating.”

Another key insight from the Discover Boating First-Time Boat Buyer research reveals that two-thirds of first-time boat buyers will only give out personal information at the point of purchase – meaning manufacturers and dealers are currently not getting traditional leads from two-thirds of first-time buyers.

“The way people shop today is very different than in 2005, and through this in-depth analysis, we as an industry have to realize that traditional leads may soon be harder to come by and there is a need to identify more impactful ways to connect with potential first-time buyers,” adds Blackwell.

The research provides key insights that are relevant for the entire North American recreational boating industry. It was conducted in the US by Discover Boating’s marketing agency partner, OLSON, and is based on surveying 2,000 people interested in buying their first boat, 550 people who recently bought their first boat and 250 lapsed shoppers. In addition, OLSON conducted in-depth interviews with 20 people interested in buying their first boat, and they followed 75 people interested in buying their first boat or who recently purchased their first boat via real-time ‘mobile journaling’ – where these individuals documented their boat buying process through a special app on their mobile phone or tablet. This methodology provided a thorough exploration of the boaters of tomorrow, what attracts them to boating and how they want to buy.

Six Types of First-Time Boat Buyers

Discover Boating says that research aimed at understanding first-time buyers’ mindset and motivations for purchasing a boat transcend generation, income, boat type and even geography. Here are the six types of first-time boat buyers identified in the study, along with their various motivations for getting out on the water:

Gear Guys / 14.6 million people / 17 percent of audience

Younger adults, mostly men, motivated by hobbies with specialized equipment. They are intrigued by the tech and the specs. They crave details, so when they’re ready to buy a boat, they want to talk to the experts. For the Gear Guys, it’s not about being on the water – it’s about the boat.

Merry Mates / 13.7 million people / 16 percent of audience

Family is at the core of everything they do – especially their activities. When it comes to boating, Merry Mates rarely plan events, but they love going along for the ride. For them, boat ownership is the best way to connect as a family.

Luxurious Leisurers / 15.1 million people / 18 percent of audience

Image conscious and surround themselves with the finer things. They are always up for trying a new hobby or activity. For the Luxurious Leisurers, owning a boat is an achievement that gives them a boost in status.

Water Weekenders / 19.2 million people / 23 percent of audience

Enjoy being by or on the water but they didn’t grow up boating. In their social circles, the Water Weekenders are the ones who plan outings on the boat – tubing, cruising, fishing and water skiing. For them, owning a boat is driven by their desire to host friends and family.

Seclusion Seekers / 10.6 million people / 12 percent of audience

Nature lovers who consider their daily life stressful and full of obligations. Seclusion Seekers escape to the great outdoors through activities like hunting, hiking, camping or kayaking. For them, boating is about getting away from the daily grind and connecting with nature on the water.

Nautical Natives / 11.9 million people / 14 percent of audience

Boating is in their DNA so they understand the appeal of boating and take joy in getting on the water. With lots of experience under their belt, Nautical Natives see themselves as boating experts. Their desire to own a boat is rooted in continuing a family legacy.

Learn more about these six types here.

Path to Ownership

Beyond defining first-time boat buyers, the research looked at their journey to ownership. Five distinct stages emerged from the findings, and while each segment may have slightly different needs, they follow a similar pattern – all highly emotional, filled with excitement, but also anxiety and disappointment.

  1. Develop / Life experiences form an affinity for boating

This stage is passive and takes place over the course of a lifetime. While they haven’t considered boat ownership, there are four types of experiences that increase the likelihood they’ll become a boat owner: going boating as children, going boating with friends today, participating in outdoor activities (e.g. camping, biking, hunting), and having on-the-water vacation experiences (e.g. cruises, chartering, beach trips).

  1. Desire / A spark ignites the desire for boat ownership

The desire for ownership shifts into an active mode in this stage. Participation is the number one trigger for boat ownership—it’s while on a boat they decide to own.

  1. Dream / Start to imagine their life on the water

The clearer their picture of life on the water, the closer they are to purchase.

  1. Decide / Navigate the realities of buying and owning a boat

They encounter unpleasant surprises as they try to close the deal, including lack of understanding of costs involved with ownership and feeling pressured by dealers.

  1. Do / Set out, open to all the possibilities of life on the water

They revel in the joys of boat ownership.

Learn more about the paths to ownership here.

Turning Research into Action for Dealers and Manufacturers

This research was conducted to help manufacturers, dealers and the Discover Boating campaign take action to better reach first-time buyers. Key findings that can be immediately applied and implemented in showrooms, at boat shows, and online, include:

  • Get them on the water: The research confirms that participation drives eventual ownership. Nearly all first-time buyers interviewed pointed to a specific trip when they decided they wanted to own.
  • Meet individual needs: Treat first-time boat shoppers a little differently than repeat buyers, as they have unique needs when it comes to purchasing. Today, many expect upon entering a dealership that they need to prepare for battle, arming themselves with information or even friends who are boat experts. By understanding the first-time boat buyer’s needs and better meeting them, a higher percentage of these shoppers will become buyers after having a pleasant purchase experience, thus increasing customer loyalty.
  • Be their resource: Getting advice from other people – either friends, marina staff or dealers – is crucial to their purchase process, according to recent first-time owners. But, the majority of first-time boat buyers surveyed did not have people in their lives who they trust to give them advice on buying and owning a boat.
  • Transparency matters: First-time buyers are prepared to take on the investment of buying a boat. But, it’s what they see as ‘hidden’ costs that can derail their purchase. They often don’t learn about expenses like registration fees and maintenance costs until the last minute. Dealers have an opportunity to increase buyers’ trust and close more deals by educating them about the ins and outs of owning a boat earlier in the sales process and by offering purchase options that make boat ownership easier.

“Discover Boating’s value is in helping our industry make sure we’re attracting the next generation of boaters and then acting as a conduit to hand them off to manufacturers and dealers who can then nurture these potential buyers,” says Blackwell. “If we could convince just two percent more of the consumers who are now dropping out to purchase their first boat, it would make a significant difference in boat sales.”

“For Canadian stakeholders, Discover Boating’s toolkit and other resources have been adapted for our marketplace in English and French,” says Tracey Hart, Directory of Marketing for Discover Boating Canada. “These are available on as well as”

The purpose of Grow Boating is to identify growth opportunities within the marine industry, and champion those opportunities through consumer communications, targeted programs, and by developing industry education and resources.

The purpose of Discover Boating is to introduce new people to boating and to advance their exploration of ownership. Serving as the industry’s national boating awareness campaign developed by the North American recreational boating industry, the organization ultimately aims to get more people out on the water. Discover Boating programs focus on the boating experience and building interest in recreational boating by providing a resource for North Americans to explore the benefits, accessibility and fun of the boating lifestyle.